I love the work of French metal clay artist Armelle Burbaud. Her sculptural pieces are complex and so beautifully rendered. And what makes them all the more extraordinary is that they are mainly made in bronze clay with all its inherent issues.
Armelle was born and brought up in Paris, France. “I was born in Paris and spent all my childhood in a suburb just outside the city,” she began. “Even if it was a place with some greenery, in the end I longed for the quiet of the countryside. Now, however, if the truth be said, I miss Paris. It was so easy to go and see performances and exhibitions, or just stroll in the streets, and I loved that. I do get to go there still from time to time, but it’s not that easy when you live in the provinces.”
“Now I live just under 200 kilometres away from south-west Paris, in a tiny country village, with fields all around it. It’s a very quiet, leafy place, where I feel content and serene. I live by myself – if I can actually say that, with five cats, two dogs and occasionally with two of my three grown-up children.”
Armelle told me about her studio space. “I’m right in the middle of moving into a new workspace. Until now, I’ve always worked in my dining room, because I loved being opposite the French window with the garden beyond it, so if I looked out, I could see my flowers and the birds. My pieces could be kept there without too much damage, except for the many hairs that got stuck to the clay, from my cats, who would come and lie next to them,” she laughed!
She went on, “but with time, different drawers got added to my small wooden table. I tended to have a disorderly pile of tools on them and when my young dog arrived in the Spring, it became really too difficult to manage. I think he would have carried off the table with everything on it and had great fun with my tools or the hanging motor of the Dremel and most likely eaten the metal clay. Consequently, I decided to set up my workspace in another room in the house, but for the moment, it’s not quite up and running. Moreover, as I have too much work at the high school at the moment, I haven’t really had the chance to get back into sculpture. Until last year, I spent absolutely all my free time there, often late into the night.”
I asked Armelle about her job. “My official job is high school teacher. At present, I’m getting towards the end of a very long career, a situation which in the very near future will allow me to devote myself entirely to the activities that interest me the most, and above all, metal clay sculpture.”
And what does she do to relax? “I enjoy walking in the fields with my dogs, but what relaxes me the most, besides working with metal clay, is gardening. I love sowing and planting flowers, taking care of them, pruning my shrubs. Having one’s hands in the soil is like having them in metal clay, isn’t it?”
Armelle has always been creative. “I remember that I always used to draw a lot, indeed, drawing is one of my passions,” she explained. “I also wrote quite a bit. At the age of ten I used to write many little poems and I continued to do so as an adult. I wanted to become a writer. Then an actress. Then I discovered oil painting, pastels, and later on I became interested in modelling. For a while, I dreamed of becoming a stained window artist or a porcelain painter for the Sèvres factory. If I had a second chance, I would give it a try.”
Lucky for us though, Armelle chose metal clay to explore her creative modelling. I asked her how she discovered metal clay. “That’s my major discovery!” she exclaimed. “For a long time, I’d been looking for a material that would be likely to suit me. I’d tried several, clay, salt dough, polymer paste, but one could not be used if you didn’t have a kiln, and the other did not last long. I remember that pretty little sculpture that I gave to my parents, in Brittany, and that we found again later as a piece of squashed damp bread right by the wall where it had been hung! Then I found the polymer paste not at all pleasant to work with.”
“So metal clay, which I discovered in 2012, was a real revelation for me. It is not only soft and flexible, reactive and easy to model and sculpt, but also feels great to the touch.”
Armelle has chosen to make many of her most ambitious and complex pieces in bronze clay so I was interested to find out why she chose this notoriously tricky material. “In addition to the pleasure of modeling that can be compared to nothing else, there is the joy of overcoming technical constraints. I love pushing them to the limit by making bronze boxes, which often have the trick of becoming deformed while they are being fired so then I have to hammer them and grind them down to adjust them as precisely as possible. I also make large-sized objects in volume. But with metal clay, there is also magic in the alchemy of transforming clay into metal, the magic of firing then the polishing. These are all manipulations that I love.”
I asked Armelle to tell me the first thing she made with metal clay. “The first object I made is probably not very significant, because at the beginning, my main aim was to understand how the clay was worked and what I could get from it. At the time, apart from a kitchen knife and a piece of piping left behind by a plumber who had done some work in the house, I had no equipment to hand. So, I contented myself with taking an imprint of a black tourmaline with a relief that I particularly liked to make a bronze pendant. Most of all, I was proud of firing it successfully. Then I purchased some equipment, little by little, for polishing in particular, and a big kiln.”
Armelle is minimalist when it comes to tools which is a surprise considering the complexity of her designs! “Tools are very important for me,” she explained. “My favourite one is the scalpel, which generally replaces the magnificent gouges that I bought for myself with great enthusiasm. I use the scalpel rather than sponges, files, and sandpaper because it does absolutely everything; cutting, sculpting, hollowing out, polishing. If I were to go away to a desert island, apart from my kiln, I would take just a scalpel with me!”
“I’m also particularly attached to my polishing equipment. I love this stage in the work when the artist becomes one with his piece and takes possession of it. I enjoy cleaning, smoothing down, buffing up, creating shades of dark and light. In modelling and sculpture, it’s the stage I prefer. On the other hand, I absolutely hate mounting pieces of jewellery, because I’m a bad hand at that and I dread arriving at this step.”
I asked Armelle if she has a particular piece of her work that she holds dear. “I got a great amount of pleasure out of working on this sculpture called Leda and the Swan, which I made for a competition. I didn’t win, but I really liked creating it. It’s a wonderful memory, full of excitement, and the project, which took me several weeks, was a real challenge for me because of the particular technical constraints in working with bronze. I’m quite proud of it, and my father liked it so much that I gave it to him as a present. And that’s enough to make me happy.”
Armelle’s work is so inspiring, I asked her what influences her creatively. “Like many of us, I have been very strongly influenced by Art nouveau designs, which are so well-suited to metal clay, particularly bronze, a metal that I frequently work with. I also greatly admire very contemporary shapes that I would like to achieve in my work, but much to my despair, I always come back to very convoluted ones with a great deal of detail. In this respect, I’m like those actors who dream of one day playing tragic roles but who can only make people laugh, or the other way around. But it’s probably the way it should be, and in any case, we can’t change the way we are.”
“Other objects that I admire are ancient jewellery and I’m particularly inspired by Etruscan models with designs which incorporate numerous types of granulation. I really enjoy making this kind of pearl which I find extraordinarily attractive.” This amazing Etruscan-style necklace is a perfect example of this influence in Armelle’s work.
I asked her if she has a particular style. “I hope that I do have a style, but I’m probably not a good judge on that. I like very fine, detailed sculptures, modelling and sculpting flowers and birds in flight. Nature is a great source of inspiration to me, as well as movement.”
With such complexity in design as well as the technical issues, I was interested to understand Armelle’s creative process. “I really like to work on my models on paper beforehand, both for the pleasure of drawing and in order to be able to plan the whole of the piece with all its technical aspects. That’s how I now have an entire series of drawings of pieces of jewellery that I have made in all sorts of situations, in bed before going to sleep, during train journeys or supervising my high school pupils during tests. I love this stage of the work, which to me, is indispensable so that I can get a real sense of the shapes and technical constraints.”
“For the moment, I haven’t really experimented with techniques that would be complementary with metal working, but I have many on my ‘to do’ list, including enamel, glass work, or Keum bo, for example.”
Despite being a professional teacher, Armelle doesn’t teach metal clay. “I haven’t yet given any lessons, except to show the technique to some friends, on a private basis.” She also doesn’t sell her work. “At present, I haven’t got the required status to sell my creations, but I think I will be able to obtain it in a few months’ time and so channel my professional activity in a radically different direction.”
I asked her what she’s currently working on. “Right now, I’m working on a step by step process for Creative Fire, so it’s still top secret,” she smiled. What a tease, I’m really looking forward to seeing that!
She went on, “And as I haven’t produced a huge amount over the last few months, I haven’t got many new pieces, apart from a ‘wolf’s head’ pendant which I made at a time when I dreamt of having a White Swiss Shepherd dog. It really looks like him, by the way. It was probably a kind of incantation as I waited for him to be born.”
“On several occasions, I’ve taken part in competitions, notably the one organized by Metal Clay Artist Magazine, in which I won one of my very first prizes. In 2017, I also took part in the international ‘Metal Clay’ exhibition in Baccarat, in France.”
Clearly, there are changes coming in her life, so I asked Armelle where she sees her work going and what she wants to achieve in the future. “I don’t know, but I’m going somewhere, for sure!” she laughed. “For a really long time now, I have been thinking around a sculpture project inspired by dance which is something really close to my heart, and I hope to be able to carry it out soon. Moreover, as soon as I have the possibility, I would like to become an independent artist, and in particular, to work with fashion designers. I don’t know if that will actually come about, but for me, it’s a thrilling project.”
You can see more of Armelle’s work on her Facebook page. “I only have a Facebook page,” she told me. “I haven’t yet got as far as developing a web page. I haven’t found the time, the desire or the courage. All the same, I would like to have a blog on which I could communicate ideas with other artists, so I must get around to doing that one day.” https://www.facebook.com/Armelle-Bronze-Metal-clay-655457871163459/
Armelle also has a detailed and beautiful tutorial on Creative Fire:(French Version) https://cre8tivefire.com/artist-project-series-bague-paon-par-armelle-burbaud/ (English Version) https://cre8tivefire.com/artist-project-series-peacock-ring-by-armelle-burbaud/
Personally, I can’t wait until Armelle gets the time she needs to work with metal clay without interruptions. I’m sure there are amazing things in her future.
About the author: Julia Rai is an award winning artist, teacher and writer well known in the international metal clay community. Her work has featured in a wide range of publications and she writes regularly for print magazines and online. She teaches in her home studio in Cornwall and travels to teach by invitation. You can find Julia at her school in St. Austell, UK www.csacj.co.uk